On July 7, public protests against ethnic Chechens were held in the town of Pugachyov in Russia’s Saratov region. The protesters’ demands—that all ethnic Chechens in the town be deported and the inflow of North Caucasians end—found unusually strong support among the local residents and beyond, so much so that the authorities were forced to try to contain events that evolved into ethnic unrest.
The protests broke out after a recent arrival from Chechnya, a 16-year-old ethnic Chechen boy named Ali Nazirov, stabbed a 20-year-old local resident, Ruslan Marzhanov, to death on July 6. The incident, which reportedly started over a girl, eventually not only turned tragic, but also led to unexpectedly massive unrest. On July 8, residents of Pugachyov blocked a federal highway several times. On July 10, the protesters attempted to block the railway and the authorities introduced a ban on alcohol sales. Despite the arrest of the suspect and several other Chechens, combined with the authorities’ reassurances that the perpetrators of the crime would be prosecuted, the protests continued (https://ria.ru/incidents/20130712/949254136.html).
Russian nationalists from all over the country started preparations to travel to Pugachyov, but the police tried to keep them away from the town under various pretexts. The authorities officially stated that they could not deport ethnic Chechens, who are Russian citizens, from Saratov region. Still, in an apparent attempt to appease the crowd, over a dozen Chechens were arrested in Pugachyov and in other places in Saratov region. Many Chechens were urged to leave voluntarily. In addition, the town’s chief of police was replaced (https://kommersant.ru/doc/2233700).
Following the unrest in Pugachyov, many Russian commentators reverted to far-reaching generalizations. Andrei Yepifantsev, a prolific writer on relations between North Caucasians and Russians, asserted that all recent ethnic conflicts between ethnic Russians and North Caucasians were very similar. He wrote that in the past 20 years, the North Caucasus and, in particular, Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia, had “exited the Russian constitutional, mental, civil and any other space. They are not Russia anymore, or not fully Russia.” According to Yepifantsev, the North Caucasians live by the standards of their own clans, but when it comes to defending their rights, they claim to be Russian citizens. So, while shunning the obligation of Russian citizens, they, at the same time, benefit from Russian citizenship. The author especially decried the North Caucasians’ alleged ability to drain impoverished Russian regions of their resources and then buy up property in those same Russian regions. Yepifantsev accused the Kremlin and Putin of building this system that channels the resources of ethnic Russians to the North Caucasians. The situation of the 1990s had been reversed, in the analyst’s words, because the North Caucasus no longer wants to leave the Russian Federation, but ethnic Russians increasingly think that they should get rid of this burdensome region (https://www.apn.ru/publications/article29595.htm).
Thus, the Russian nationalists’ views are coming into conflict with the present Russian political system, which tries to retain features of the old Soviet system, with its economic paternalism, multiculturalist rhetoric and an imperial center that pretends to be equidistant from all ethnic groups in the country. The rhetoric about “peace and friendship between the peoples of Russia” is increasingly rendered hollow and derided by the Russian analysts themselves. Ethnic North Caucasians allegedly always have shadow deals with the local administration and that is why ethnic Russian protests invariably turn not only against ethnic North Caucasians, but also against the local authorities, who presumably have unlawful agreements with the newcomers (https://kavpolit.com/pugachev-pokazal-slabost-mestnoj-vlasti/).
The Chechen authorities’ representative in Saratov region, Said-Ahmed Elesov, told Russian News Service radio that he considered poverty in Pugachyov the main cause of the unrest. With a population of around 40,000, the town has few employment opportunities and poor infrastructure, according to Elesov. Only four families of ethnic Chechens resided in the town of Pugachyov and there were fewer than 100 ethnic Chechen families in the district prior to the riots. And the Chechens themselves caught the perpetrator of the crime and handed him over to the police, Elesov said. Interestingly, Elesov said that 60,000 ethnic Chechens lived in Saratov region, a figure more than 10 times greater than the official figure of Chechen residents in the region, according to the 2010 census. Also, Elesov pointed out that in 2012, an ethnic Chechen was killed in the same town of Pugachyov and the killing did not produce nearly as much public outcry as this latest incident (https://www.rusnovosti.ru/guests/interviews/271597/271598/).
Some Russian observers pointed out that the Russian government’s ongoing search for enemies has been taken up by people in the regions. “State propaganda, with its unending battle against ‘foreign agents’, ‘conspirators from Bolotnaya Square’ [the site of opposition demonstrations in Moscow], Americans and other enemies, is fond of explaining every social situation as a standoff of ‘us’ versus adversarial connivers—‘them’. It is easy to populate the template with the right candidates for ‘them’ and the situation becomes clear cut and lucid. In this case, the stand-ins for ‘them’ were substituted with the newcomer Chechens and local officials” (https://www.gazeta.ru/comments/2013/07/12_e_5425345.shtml).
In the recent protests by ethnic Russians against North Caucasians, the protesters quickly turned against the authorities. Unlike protests by ethnic minorities, Moscow cannot easily suppress or ignore the protests by ethnic Russians. So it is only a matter of time before the Russian authorities revert to openly segregationist policies in the country in order to retain a semblance of stability and unity of the country. Increasing incidents of ethnic violence are likely to force not only ordinary Russians, but also the Russian government to start considering the notion of separating the North Caucasus from the Russian Federation.